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editorial

Harvard student shows integrity in acknowledging scientific error

Every child is taught that honesty is the best policy. Yet the temptation to misstate, deny, or hide the truth when there is something to be gained from doing so can be hard to resist. All of which makes Nathan Georgette’s commitment to the truth a striking illustration of good character.

Georgette accomplished the remarkable feat of publishing two peer-reviewed papers while he was a high school student in Florida. When “The Quantification Of The Effects Of Changes In Population Parameters On The Herd Immunity Threshold” appeared in The Internet Journal of Epidemiology in 2007, Georgette was just 16. His research was rewarded with a $10,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. He followed it up two years later with a paper in PLOS ONE, an online scientific journal. Both papers dealt with complex vaccination models, and involved mathematical techniques he had taught himself.

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A few months ago, Georgette — now at Harvard studying applied mathematics — discovered a serious calculation error in the first of his papers. Though he could doubtless have let the blunder slide, he promptly contacted the Journal of Epidemiology, explained his mistake, and retracted the paper. His conscientiousness caught the attention of Dr. Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch, a blog that monitors retractions of scientific papers. Georgette’s “forthrightness stood out,” Oransky told the Globe.

Errors are inevitable in science, as in life generally. Having the integrity to publicly acknowledge one’s error — especially when no one else has noticed it — is far less common.

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